11/12/2008-12/8/2008 | India , Nagaland

Delhi to the Hornbill Festival

legacy gallery with captions

I was back in Delhi to take care of a laundry list of tasks that required my presence in the confines of the capital.  I needed a new laptop thanks to the Goan cook relieving me previous one in Leh, I needed to clean my camera sensor which was now annoyingly dusty after months in dry and dusty Ladakh, I needed to pick up a Bangladeshi Visa from my planned winter trip to the little visited nation, and I needed to see a dentist to fix my front tooth which had been missing its top since I was in Tibet.

After a frustrating experience with Dell India I ended up buying a Lenovo from Neru Place the electronics hub of Delhi.  Getting to the Canon Service center in Delhi required a feat in navigating Delhi public transport.  The service center was out in the IT area of Delhi known as DLF or more technically the neighboring city of Gurgoan.  Three buses later and a 20 minute walk I managed to find the office in futuristic sounding Cyber Greens building phase III of DLF.  DLF was a bizarre area containing huge high rise buildings, which individually would be indistinguishable from those in Hong Kong, New York, or London, but it was as if the Indian version of Manhattan was being built in the middle of nowhere.   Typically when cities build up it’s because land is a premium and there is nowhere else to expand.  In DLF, large vacant lots separated the buildings, often containing the slums which no doubt were home to many of the workers who by day built India’s new face as world power in the new business of information technology, but by night lived in the ragged plastic roofed huts of the slums that make up India’s other face.  Side by side, high rises and slums a perfect encapsulation of a country that can send a satellite to the moon and detonate a nuclear weapon but cannot provide a functioning sanitation system to its citizens.

Getting a Bangladeshi visa was relatively straight forward compared to navigating public transportation out to DLF, provided, as an American, I was willing to part with the rather steep visa fee which was equivalent of $131 for the month long visa.   A poster in the embassy lobby urged visitors to “visit Bangladesh, before the tourist come.”   After answering a few questions like, “why in the world do you want to go to Bangladesh?”  I was told I could pick up my visa the following day.

I had gotten a recommendation for a dentist from my friend David who I first met in Karnataka while he was covering the region for Rough Guide.  He was now living in Delhi working as a freelance journalist.   Going to the dentist in Delhi was a lot like visiting a barber shop in the States except cheaper.  I walked in without an appointment, sat in the waiting room and waited for my turn to see the dentist.  When it was my turn I walked in sat in the chair while the Sikh dentist built up the hole in my chipped front tooth.  About fifteen minutes later I no longer had the smile of a hockey player and my wallet was lighter by only 300 rupees (about $6-7).

With my new $6 smile I was ready to hit the town.  Well not really but I did meet up with David at a South Delhi bar.  After a few drinks there we moved on to a nearby roof top party hosted by one of his Indian friends.  It was there that I met Lambert, a German expat, living in Delhi.  He mentioned he was going to Nagaland in the northeast of India for the annual Hornbill festival which was starting next week.  I had planned on heading up to the northeast but at a bit slower pace than next week.  However one of the beauties of extended travel is the freedom to pursue opportunities as they arise, I had heard of the Hornbill festival in Nagaland from a friend of my Sikkimese friend who had told me if you go to Nagaland you should go during the Hornbill festival.  That information which had been in the back of my mind rose to the surface through my alcohol laden brain with Lambert’s announcement of his plans.  A permit with a group of four people is required to visit Nagaland and that bureaucratic red tape was probably enough to make me forego the state yet I was now presented with an opportunity, as it happened Lambert was looking for 1 more person to make the group of four.  Whether it was the alcohol talking or not I’m not sure but I agreed to go.

Less than a week later I was on the Northeast Express, a two day train journey from Delhi to Guwahati, the capital of Assam.  I had a day in Guwahati much of which I spent with a couple friendly Assamese guys, while I waited for the night bus to leave for the Nagaland capital of Kohima, site of the Hornbill festival, but most famous for the World War II battle which halted the Japanese advance from Burma into India.  I was a little nervous crossing into Nagaland in the early morning.  Despite the fact that the point of the four person permit was that people were supposed to travel in a group within Nagaland, all four of the people on my permit were arriving separately.  I had made a color print of the permit that Lambert had scanned and sent to me which looked like the original after a bit of photoshop work as well a number of black and white photocopies.  I rehearsed in my head what I would say at the check point, that my train had been late (which it had), my friends (the others on the permit) were already in Kohima and I just wanted to join them so I could see the Hornbill festival.  This story seemed perfectly fine to the officer at the check point and I was allowed to continue to Kohima.

The alleged reason for the permit requirement for Nagaland is for the safety of the tourists.  Having somewhat arbitrarily been divided up between Burma (Myanmar) and the Indian states of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, the Naga tribes felt they had gotten a raw deal in the post colonial rush to redraw the borders on the subcontinent.  Three different rebel groups have been fighting the Indian government as well each other for the last 60 years until a recent cease fire.  Although despite the cease fire the groups still seem to act as a sort of mafia extracting money from the local communities to support their fight for “Naga Freedom.”  There is certainly no great love for the rest of India in Nagaland and the society which relishes its meat, especially beef, and probably takes some satisfaction that frequent slaughter of cows especially during festivals appalls the Hindus of the plains.  There is not a Hindi sign in the state, Nagamese is written with the Latin alphabet the language that the various Naga tribes use to communicate with each other since each tribe has its own language which is often incompressible to those in a different tribe.  Into the early 20th century the Naga tribes lived more or less independently as they had for centuries, though nominally under British influence.  They were fierce warriors infamous throughout the region for their tradition of headhunting in which rival villages were raided and the heads of the victims were taken back and stored in the village morung as a symbol of the village’s power and to bring good fortune to the community.  The missionaries were very successful in Nagaland through the mid 20th century and the headhunting days are finished, as such behavior tended to be frowned upon by the conservative Christian missionaries who managed to convert essentially the entire population of Nagaland.  Although as recently as the late 1980s, there was a tribal war over a land dispute between the Konyak and a neighboring tribe, in which allegedly some heads were taken.

The most successful missionaries in Nagaland were the American Southern Baptists who mostly came from the rural southern states.  In addition to there conservative religion they also brought the culture of the southern United States to Nagaland.  Thus in Nagaland there is a bizarre mix of a traditionally tribal society and southern American culture including an affinity for country and gospel music among the elder generation as well as heavy metal among the youth.  The hornbill festival was created as a way to preserve the traditional dances of the Nagas as well as draw tourist to the region.   However, the heavy restriction on foreign tourists meant that the for the most part the seats were only sparsely populated by tourist and a handful of locals.  Much larger crowds of Naga youths showed up for the heavy metal music contest in the evenings with local Naga bands scream to electric guitar cords inspired by the metal bands of the 80s.  I did make it to one night of the music contest and while the music wasn’t that great in my opinion I did have fun moshing with the locals and even doing a bit of crowd surfing.  A feat which gave me some degree of fame as I would meet several locals later who said they saw me at the concert.  A large white guy being passed over the heads of a sea of much shorter Nagas does tend to draw a bit of attention.

Walking through the streets and markets of Kohima it was somewhat refreshing to hear Christmas carols blaring from the shops rather than the latest Bollywood hits.  For the first time since I’ve been in Asia it was actually feeling a bit like Christmas.  In the evenings during the festival street-side restaurants set up in central Kohima serving a range of primarily meat based Naga cuisine as well alcohol rather openly considering that Nagaland is supposedly a dry state in which consumption of alchole is baned.  That being said its probably the “wettest” dry state in India, as Nagas seem to like their booze almost as much as they like their meat, and they really like their meat.  I was partaking in a particularly tasty dish and refreshing beer at such a street side establishment when I met Fredrick and Asino.  Fredrick was a French expat living in Delhi who had been working for the French Foreign Service as a French teacher and was currently taking a year off and doing a bit of furniture exporting and restoration.  He also knew Lambert, the German I had got the permit with but who had yet to show up in Nagaland.  Asino was Naga girl living in Delhi and a friend of his.  I accepted an invitation to tour her village, which was just outside of Kohima, after the festival program the following day.  Amazingly enough in this village we ran into an old woman who said we were the first white people she had seen since World War II, despite the fact the village was only about a half hour walk from the site of the hornbill festival where there were at least 30 other foreigners.  The old woman assumed we were English (probably more of an insult to my French companion than to myself) and thanked us for defeating the Japanese, who because they had traveled light through the jungle up from Burma were particularly cruel to the local population in foraging for supplies.

In another web of introductions I met May, a girl from Singapore who was also on the same permit as me, and Phejin, a Konyak girl from the northern most Mon district of Nagaland.  Lambert, May, and Phejin had met each other through the site www.couchsurfing.org which I am also a member of but have not particularly made much use of.  In another random twist of fate I accepted an invitation along with May to visit Phejin’s village the Mon district and extended my stay in Nagaland for a bit longer.

4 comments to Delhi to the Hornbill Festival

  • Nick


    I’m in Nagaland right now……Mokokchung district…..I’m from the southern part of India, Kerala, and married my wife, from Nagaland.

    Hope to hear from ya.



  • Cool, I really like Nagaland. Had a good time there both times I was up there. May end up getting back up there again this summer, but in Nepal right now. Haven’t been to Mokokchung district mainly spent time in Mon district where my friend lives. Nagaland is definitely a place where it helps to have local contacts. Feel free to email me at micahhanson33@gmail.com

  • amit das

    no work of fiction thrills me as your writings do!:)
    hopefully i will explore the hornbill festival 2010,keeping my fingers crossed.

  • Hope you make it there Amit, enjoy.

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